Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hellhole - Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have been working together on a whole stack of Dune novels in the past decade. I've read most of them and while they don't quite deserve the vitriol that is often directed at them, they range from entertaining at best to completely superfluous. The last one I've read, Paul of Dune (2008), convinced me that Dune was a creative dead end for these two authors. I was mildly curious when the pair announced that they were writing a new trilogy in a universe of their own however. Not enough to actually buy the book, but when a contest on showed up I took part, and surprisingly, won a copy. They have since started including a set conditions in their contests that means you have to be a US resident to take part. Looks like it will be the first and last book I won over there. Still, I appreciate Tor being a good sport and sending me this copy.

After a failed rebellion against the corrupt regime of the Constellation, an interstellar empire that spans dozens of worlds, general Tiber Maximilan Adolphus is exiled to the newly colonized and extremely hostile planet of Hallholme. Because of the harsh conditions of this world, it is quickly awarded a nickname: Hellhole. His rebellion may have failed, Adolphus still commands the loyalty of much of the population. Despite attempts by the ruler of the Constellation, Diadem Michella Duchenet to make sure his attempt to settle Hallholme fails, he survives the first years there. Now, more than a decade later, Adolphus is at the point where he once again has the support and resources to undertake action against the tyrant Duchenet. And this time he means to succeed.

Hellhole is without a doubt, the worst book I've read this year. Herbert and Anderson manage to paint just about every character in the book in black and white, starting from the very beginning of the novel. The prologue chronicles the final confrontation in Adolphus' rebellion and outlines the general as a noble victim of circumstances rising against the tyranny of a corrupt and decadent empire. He refuses to fire on the people used as a human shields by the empire, thereby loosing the final battle. Apparently Adolphus, a man who's had leadership trust upon him, neither foresaw nor planned for this desperate tactic of the empire. Although he keeps the moral high ground, he also fails his people miserably by allowing his revolution to collapse in a single blow. Adolphus is heroic, noble, holds to impeccable moral standards but nowhere in the novel is he actually seen to inspire the loyalty he seems to command. In short, he is a cardboard character and one of many in the novel.

I guess you could see this tale as a retelling of the American revolution. An corrupt empire is burdening its colonies with unrealistically high taxes, refuses to listen to the arguments of the colonists and is seen to use the taxes mostly to support their luxurious lifestyle and support a large and mostly superfluous military machine. To complete the moral bankruptcy of the empire it is revealed to be rather wasteful with its excess of noble born children. The rebels on the other hand, strife for self determination, a meritocracy and above all, a chance to properly develop their planets. To remove any moral ambiguity that might be left, the natives of the planet Adolphus colonizes have already been taken care of a centuries earlier. They perished in a catastrophic meteor strike.

One of the attractions of this novel was that Herbert and Anderson where striking out on their own instead of working in the Dune universe. Much to my dismay, the novel borrows quite heavily from Dune. There is the harsh environment of the planet (a feature found in several Frank Herbert novels, besides Dune it appears in The Dosadi Experiment and several books in the Destination: Void universe), a corrupt and stagnating empire run along feudal lines and lacking any outside threat and of course the one noble in the empire who has understood the meaning of that word and actually takes proper care of his people. All things considered, Herbert and Anderson seem to be reluctant to let go of a proven formula for success.

The spice in this novel is not a drug but a substance that allows interstellar transport. The mineral that can be mined in meaningful quantities on one planet in the empire can be used to mark trails through space. An interplanetary trail of breadcrumbs, safe paths where spaceships can reach enormous speeds and thus cross vast distances in practical time spans. Apparently in the Herbert and Anderson universe, planets don't move relative to each other. Not surprisingly, the planet where this stuff is mined is subject of a lot of scheming and intrigue. Herbert and Anderson also wonder what would happen if the monopoly on interstellar transport would be broken (this is not actually in Dune but one of Frank Herbert's later Dune books). At one point in the novel, I wondered if all Herbert and Anderson meant to do with this novel was mix Frank Herbert's concepts up a bit, the inclusion of an alien civilization is one of the few elements not borrowed from Dune.

Perhaps it was a bit too much to hope for a fresh start from these two writers but I certainly hadn't expected them to come up with something that's so derivative. That being said, it is not actually a boring read. Herbert and Anderson sacrifice a lot of character development and world building to flit from planet to planet and character to character in order to keep up the relentless pace of the story. We're shown the bare outlines of what is going on, usually with enough history of the character to determine whether we're dealing with a good or a bad guy but not much beyond. I really can't find many redeeming qualities in this novel. I suppose that if you are looking for mindless entertainment this novel might be palatable. For me, it was a major disappointment.

Book Details
Title: Hellhole
Author: Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 532
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2269-2
First published: 2011


  1. Great review. I'll know to avoid this one. I share your opinions of their Dune collaborations (though I'm closer to the vitriolic end of the scale). I've read some of Anderson's Saga of Seven Suns, and I plan to finish the series, but each book only confirms that Anderson is not going to improve or surprise me. As you observed, he doesn't know how to be subtle in his characterization. This was especially a problem in The Edge of the World, a fantasy book of his that I thought was literally about a flat world but was merely about a shallow religious war.

  2. I haven't read any of Anderson's solo work and from what I've read so far, I'm not tempted too. I might give Herbert another go though. I have the book he wrote with his father on the to read stack somewhere.

  3. Oy... I just listened to Hellhole, Vol I (?!?), on a series of L-O-N-G roadtrips. While it wasn't bad for travel companionship, I was shocked and torqued that the *@&# book didn't end on the 15th disc. I am a huge Frank Herbert fan and was nerdily pleased with some of the themes in HH as I had mentioned my affinity for the Whipping Star series to BH and KJA at a book reading a couple of years back, but this, Sir, is no Whipping Star. Where's the good scifi these days?!?

  4. It's out there, I'm just not convinced these two gentlemen are the ones writing it ;)